PENCIL PAPER:  My Talk with Brian Cronin

My Talk with Brian Cronin

BC_0080_lrz_web[7]_1.jpg"Brian Cronin: 25 Years and Change"
Retrospective 1983--2008
Casa da Cerca, Center for Contemporary Art
Lisbon, Portugal
(On view through August 30, 2008)

fred4.jpg"Going Over Home: Photographs by Fred Woodward"
401 Projects
401 West Street (at Charles Street), NYC
(On view through August 24, 2008)

* * * * *
Brian Cronin came up to my office at 4 Times Square late last February--dapper as always--asking if we could do a little interview to be used in the catalog that would accompany an upcoming retrospective in Lisbon of his illustration career.

I borrowed a recorder and a couple of cassettes, and we talked until I ran out of tape.

He was in the very early stages of working toward a fine-art show (also to be shown in Lisbon this October). We talked about the source of his creativity, his early and present influences (Glaser and Bergman), art versus commerce, growing up in a Dublin bed & breakfast, starting over at age 50, racing the clock, and that elusive thing called joy.

FW: How long have you been back, Brian?
BC: September.
What's this show?
It's all illustration, since I began.
Not the painting?
A retrospective.
Kind of. I had one ten years ago, so it's like the same thing again. It's the same work.
What do you mean?
I don't know if I've done anything in ten years. You know? I can't figure out if this is old stuff, or stuff I did last week. That's how retarded I am.
Where was the last show?
The Irish Museum of Modern Art. (Fat Face with Fork 1988) This is in Lisbon.
How did this come about?
The art college over there called ARCO organized it, for the Museum. I'll have another show in October in a commercial gallery, also in Portugal. I'm doing everything over there.
I love Portugal, and feel very much at home there, so this is a great honor for me. In some ways I feel more at home there than I do in Ireland (where I'm from). Portugal is becoming an important part of who I am, or who I'm becoming. I feel I am at the start--a new beginning.
2 cronin[7]_1.jpg

The gallery show in October will be new paintings?
It was a big first for me to get a gallery. I'm useless at self-promotion--the idea of me going in anywhere to try and convince anybody of anything is a nightmare. A friend suggested I show my work to the gallery (MCO Arte Contemporanea in Porto) and I showed them a mish-mash of stuff that I was working on. They saw the direction and gave me a show.
How many pieces do you think there will be?
At this rate, two. (laughter)
C'mon. How many pieces for each show? Ballpark.
150 in Lisbon and...(softly) I don't know...(pause) I'd kind of given up illustration since June '06, for whatever reason. Because it wasn't for making money because I'm not making anything. It's difficult, to just do it, and that's it. Do you know what I mean?
No. What do you mean?
To just go in everyday, and just do the thing you wanted to do, which is art. Then you're in there, and you're thinking "I can't do this". You know, all kinds of doubt come in, and then you're not making any money, and you're not producing any art, so there's guilt on top of guilt on top of guilt. (muffled laughter from Fred) Then there's nothing to look forward to because this is what you were looking forward to. (big laughter from Fred) So now I can only look forward to sneaking back in and getting some illustration work going.
Is that mainly why you came back?
I was over there [Portugal] for more or less a year, I was in a relationship over there--I'm getting a divorce.
That's not final?
No. It's going to be final in two months. That's been a bit of a nightmare. Not that we don't get on, but the process.
How long were you married?
25 years.
How long together?
28. Would be 30 can't include the last two years because we were separated.
Siuin's an artist, too, right?
Yeah. Textiles. [textile design] No, it's very difficult...because I've never...been, eh, on my own, basically.
There was another relationship?
No.....Well, just after--a year after. 'Cause I figured, what am I waiting on? (laughter) The other shoe to...the roof to cave in?
So I went over there and it was great but I couldn't speak the language and I was at the mercy of Christina (that was her name). She would have to do everything for me because I just couldn't grasp it. I couldn't even work up the enthusiasm to say anything, because they'd look at you and know you're not from Portugal, and then they'd start speaking English, so before you even had it out of your mouth they'd change it into English, so I thought why even bother. It's a nice place to be, though.
Did it really not turn into work? Were you really not productive? Or, are you just saying that?
I think I was being productive in the last couple of months. But prior to that I think I was just too freaked out. Then I had back surgery over there. (Fred moans) I told you about that, didn't I? (another bigger moan) Fucking murder.
So you come off the end of your marriage, and then...
And there were some other things...
....not any kind of surgery, but back surgery...
I didn't know what to do. People were saying I should go back to America for the surgery. There were a lot of things to figure out, but the guy who did the surgery was well known and I trusted him. But, I thought I was going to die. They're wheeling me in on the gurney and you see the florescent lights going by and you're on your back and I'm thinking, "This is it."
They have to cut up your back to get into your spinal cord, and I just imagined them fucking it up, and waking up (if I did wake up) without the use of something. I'm glad it's over.
Is that experience going into the work in any way?
The funny thing is, I had a tumor on my spine, but it wasn't cancerous or anything like that. I had a pain in my leg, which I thought was from tennis. They did various tests, and then they did an MRI...and then they saw this thing. Even as he's saying "tumor on your spine," I was thinking "that doesn't mean anything". He could have been talking to somebody else when he said, "We'll need to operate. If we don't, it'll only get bigger".
It's like a little stone.
Was it putting pressure on the spine?
Yeah, pressure on the nerves. He thought it would get rid of the pain in the leg, and it did. But now it's coming back. What're you going to do? But, I don't have a tumor in my back (chuckles), so that's OK.
How long was the rehab?
Uh, I was in the hospital for five days, and then I was walking around like this. (hunches over like Quasimodo)
When was that?
May 2007.
The thing was, prior to the operation I was doing these drawings of rocks. Stones. I just liked doing them. First they were in the water, and then they were on their own, and then they fucking find one in my spine. Your brain is telling you (leans over and whispers), "There's a rock in your back!" (laughter)
So now I'm drawing ropes and things, and I'm thinking that must mean I'm going to hang myself. (big laughter) So from now on I'm only going to draw beautiful women. (bigger laughter) That's the plan.
I'm glad you're still here.
So anyway, it's been a transition year, you know? Giving up illustration, more or less. I do the odd job, and now I'm getting back into it again.
How is that?--coming back to the city and coming back to illustration?
The illustration is still very random. Maybe one a month. Which isn't enough to live on. I'm living on savings. You can't drop out and live in New York City. The only reason I'm living here is because David Sandlin (an Irish illustrator) got a scholarship in Georgia and he gave me his flat to rent. And his studio. So I have a place to live and a place to work. But he's coming back in May (2008). I don't know where I'm going to go, but I keep thinking about maybe going back to Portugal. If I live here it'll have to be like, Bed-Sty or ah...I don't know, Bed-something.
You tried living upstate for a while, right?
I lived up there four years. It was good, but my marriage kind of fell apart. (pause) I got stuck in an elevator.
I got stuck in an elevator when I first got back. Everything happened to me this year. The very minute I stepped out of marriage, it was like...'cause I don't see myself as someone who has a lot of, 'um...I just kind of wander around...and Siuin was the one who kept me within some kind of a barrier, you know?
What do you mean "some kind of a barrier"?
Just some kind of structure. Now, I can't do my taxes, I don't know what's going on...I've got to grow up quickly.
That's really finished? The marriage is really over?
We don't dislike each other, it was just a slow 'moving away' and then it just got bigger. After that length of time, what's the point? Try something else. It's like living in Ireland. I lived there for 27 years and I'm not going back. I don't care what happens to me, I'm not going back there.

Picture 2[7].png* * * * *
So you're going to see your brother?
Where does he live?
Tucson, Arizona.
Is he your older or younger brother?
What does he do?
What kind of work?
He really took the guy's advice in "The Graduate" to heart. (laughter) My son fancies himself an inventor, and science is his favorite subject. What did your dad do?
He ran a 'bed and breakfast'.
...and your mom as well?
Yeah. They ran it together.
They're both dead.
Actually, my mom ran the business, and my dad worked for her.
Where was it?
Is that what they did when you were growing up?
I lived in a 'bed and breakfast'. It wasn't trendy. It was a nice house, but it was like a motel, almost. It was anybody and everybody. Farmers, down-and-outers, drunks. My mother would literally take people in off the street. We'd be all embarrassed. Hated it.It's funny--I have no insight into people. I'm taken in like that. I trust people, and so did my dad. Privacy is a big thing for me. I'd never share a flat or get a roommate--not even in a studio. I want it to be just me.
Because you come from that environment....
Yeah. It's the opposite--a funny upbringing, you know?
Your dad never did anything else?
Well, he was in the army--the Irish Army--before he met my mam. She wanted to do more things, but he was too quiet. It held her back a bit.
Like what?
Buying property. I remember going out with her one time--she wanted to buy these two houses by the sea, which would have been worth millions and millions now. They were so beautiful....Dad was just reluctant to take chances. He was safe, and she was the opposite. Then she died when she was 59.
When was that? How old were you?
I was 20 at the time. 1978.
How did she die?
Brain hemorrhage. Tumor.
I had cancer, too.
She had migraine headaches all her life, and maybe that had something to do with it.
Did they love that you drew--that you were an artist?
I think they did, yeah. I'd been written off in school as a big waste of space, so art was something I could do. Normally people would say, "Don't do art. Get a real job." But they figured I wouldn't get a real job--so, "Let him do art." My sister went to art college before me. But, that wasn't a good thing because she got kicked out.
Smoking dope.
She did fine art--was a bit of a hippie. It's hard to get kicked out of an art college. (laughter) So my parents were thinking, "Oh, and here we've got another one!" (more laughter) I'd done nothing in high school--couldn't give a shit. But, then I went to college and I really started to work, got very serious. I kind of amazed myself.


* * * * *
How old are you?
That's the other bad thing.
(big laughter) Tell me. Tell me about it.
I just turned 50.
That's a lot. All of it. Everything.
(Makes whip noises as he lashes his back three times, Opus Dei-style, and ends with a grunt), "AND you're 50!".
50 brings a lot of pressure, to try and do a lot of stuff before you're 51, 61, 71, 81. You know? That's the plan. Doesn't sound like a plan, but that's it.
Who are you working for? When you are doing that rare job, who's calling?
It can be anybody. It's not like there's this big group of people, because everybody changes jobs and moves around. Outside magazine is somebody I work with.
Hannah McCaughey.
Right. And Readers' Digest--Victoria Nightingale over there.
That's a lovely name.
I only work for women with nice names. (laughs)
So how do you get the word out? How do they find you?
I had an agent when I was away--Riley Illustration. Then I came back and took over, took over the corporation. It was just somebody to answer the phone while I was away, really. They knew I wasn't working. They took me on, could maybe sell some stock or something like that. But it's been so long since I've done anything, people don't know if I'm dead...if I'm living in Portugal...I'm not even sure.
Depressing interview. (chuckles)
No it's not. No it's not.
I'm in therapy, as well. And I'm on Prozac.
First time in therapy?
I was doing it in Portugal, and I was doing it before I left. But, it was always only half-arsed, but this guy's really good. He has a list of my problems.
What are they? Does he really tell you that? He doesn't really...does he?
He does. (sigh) I was abused. I kind of knew, but I was abused at school. Just beaten. The normal stuff. But that's abuse, now. So, that's on the list.
At what age?
All the way up, to 16, maybe.
No. Well, teachers beating me up, and stuff like that. Real physical. Black eyes. Threatening me. But it was everybody--if it wasn't me, it was some other idiot. It was like we were in prison, rather than you're the only one being picked on, you know?
What kind of school was it?
Catholic...the best, only the best. (laughter) If you want people to dish out abuse go right to the top. (big laughter)
Go to the real professionals.
Yeah...(long pause)...and then, of course, leaving the marriage was a big deal. Plus anxiety attacks. Panic.
This is a little like therapy.
Except that I only take cash.
Yeah. (laughs) You don't go to therapy, no?
No, but I have. Remember the year my mom died, and then my dad, just a few months apart? It was time to get a little help, and it really got me through the very tough, serious grieving period.
I'm not really crazy about it, but at this stage I kind of need it. There's too much going on.
Just the end of a 28-year relationship is reason enough--because that's a grieving process.
It's only in the last couple of months, while the divorce is going through, that it's gotten a little easier. I don't think about it all the time.
I need to find a place to live, as well.
Just being that transient has got to be tough. You didn't just lose the relationship--you lost your home. And to be suddenly single again...
Single, for the first time, because I was living at home and we met in college. It's an adjustment. I've never lived on my own.  
It's high time.
Yeah, it's high time.
A good thing.
It's a good thing, and it's kind of weird. I keep asking people, "What do you do?--when you're not doing things with other people, what are you doing?".... People aren't doing that much, really. (Fred laughs) I thought there were like, some kind of secrets. I guess you have to get off your arse and do it yourself.
And, if you're also an artist, working on your own all the time...and you're single...I don't mind. I'm used to it. But I wonder what's next...
When you're trying to do the illustration now, how does it feel? Does it just kick back in?
No. But that's why I took the time out. I found it impossible to do both. I don't know how you do it.
What does that mean?
How you can design, and take photographs.
Well, I'm just taking the pictures for myself.
I know, but it's a different way of thinking.
Is it?
It is for me. Well, you must have a reason for taking the photographs.
I'm not conjuring up pictures.
You just take whatever?  
I'm seeing my picture. The pictures are coming to me.
But, I could be much, much better about giving myself projects, which I don't seem to maybe that's the parallel.
I think that's the difficult thing, because we're probably in a similar boat because we're dealing with things with a short life span. Week-to-week. Month-to-month. It's this, this, this, this.
The problem is to try and have one thing, and see it through. For how long it takes, and without wandering off into something else, or getting distracted. That's why I think it's a struggle.

boy_crying_FredWoodward_web.jpgFor instance? When you say that, what would be one body of work?
That's what I'm working on now. Before I showed the guy in Portugal my work, I was just doing whatever came into my head. I had stumbled onto interiors. And then I started to think about my past, and memories, trying to make some kind of reason to work. It started out like that. I'm not sure if it's going to continue, because I'm already starting to wander off. After five months of working like this I'm finding it hard to stay focused on the memories and interiors.
Do you think these choices of subject come directly out of the therapy?
No. It's nothing to do with therapy. It's got to do with me forcing myself to think of one thing. When I work as an illustrator, it's given to you on a plate--"Here it is. Here's the problem. Here's the deadline. Go!" That's it. It's a beautiful thing really. You just do it. You have a bit of a problem, and you have an idea, and it's done. Over.
I'd like to be able to do that with my own work.
During that five-month period, how many pieces--worthwhile pieces that you like--have you done?
I'm far too hard on myself.
I know you're hard on yourself. You've always been hard on yourself.
That's why I'm in therapy. I'm so hard...I'm not doing anything. (emotional) You know what I mean? It's almost making me stop.
I've got to say, you have been so prolific you're whole career--so incredibly prolific--maybe it's not such a terrible thing to take a little break. 
(pause) Well, now it's too late for a break. Because it's 50, 60, 70 pieces, roughly, that I have to produce and I've got to get on with it. There's no time for more messing around.
I've never seen you do anything less than a great piece...
(softly) Thank you.
...and I'm sure if I were looking at what you had been doing in that five month period, I wouldn't think any different...
I brought some of it. I'll show you the illustrations first, but you've probably already seen them all. I don't keep any of the references, which is one of the problems with the show.
What do you mean?
I throw everything out. So I don't know what magazine it was for, or when it was published, but more often than not they kind of speak for themselves.
Well, let me ask you a question. (pause) What's the difference? Why is this not your fine art?
Because I was given the subject matter.
What difference does that make?
To me! To me...
In the end, when it's divorced (sorry for using that word) from what the original motivation was, it still stands up on its own as a beautiful piece of art--without knowing what the context was.
Except for me, it's all style...the idea is divorced for me. Maybe a flower (shows a small illustration of a single flower). I could say it has its own beauty and I can do it for that, but everything else...(fades off)

(We look at a small stack of his illustrations. I say that the last three (book covers for an English publisher of science fiction titles) are my favorites, and Brian says that they're the most recent--that that's a good sign.)


* * * * *
Sorry--I had to flip the tape.

It'll be us talking backwards. (laughter)
Anyway. What I do is I draw on the reverse side of the tissue paper and then I just burnish it down. So I can kind of get more than one drawing out of it, you know? I can burnish it once, and then I can burnish it again. It's the same drawing, but what I like is the way I can do them in different sections. That they don't match up. And they become very, very faint. (We're looking through some new work for the show). The idea is that they're interiors that I've lived in. I've moved around a lot, and they're always empty or I'm moving in or I'm moving out. These were books that I haven't read...and these were the titles of all the books I haven't read...which is every good book imaginable. (laughter) I just put a little bit of paint on to just give it a little color. But it's basically just very faint interiors. I think it's a rebellion...
The interiors are from memory?
Partially from memory....
From snaps that you took?  
Partially from magazines, newspaper cuttings, stuff like that. Then I add things like books and vegetation.
You said something about rebellion.  
I think it's kind of a rebellion against very clear, finished pieces. They're kind of half finished, half dreamy. And there's no people. Because 'people', to me means illustration, for some reason. Maybe it's because every job I do has to have a person in it, so these drawings are a rebellion for me. (continues to flip through pages of the new drawings) Not to get off the subject, but I'm starting to do ropes.
Do you have a working name for what this is?  
Memories. It's all memories.
But not a title?  
No. But I keep thinking of this thing that I hear a lot in the neighborhood where I'm working. Trouble is, it doesn't have anything to do with anything. It's what the firemen say before they leave the station next door. Just before the trucks start to roll there is a message on a loudspeaker. "LADDER ENGINE." And then you hear the trucks start up and the fireman come out of the building putting on their equipment and off they go.....I was thinking that in many ways it's like being an illustrator. There you are sitting around playing cards or whatever when you get a call (or email) with a message, "PENCIL PAPER", and off you go on this journey into a story. You have no idea of the outcome, and you don't save any lives, but in some ways it is kind of a rescue.
What are the ropes about?
I'm trying not to think too much about it. I just like drawing the ropes. I don't know where it's going to go or what it's going to turn into. I hope I'm not just getting sidetracked. It's a fortunate position to be in--just doing stuff--but it takes a lot more discipline than I thought.
I think it's good to keep it small.
Small in size?
No. Small in scope.
Yeah, otherwise it goes all over the place.The interesting thing is, you start off with an interior and you have a particular idea, and then you completely change your mind half way through the thing. You could never do that as an illustrator, because you've already given them a sketch, everything has been approved, and then you more or less have to do it that way....I guess you just have to squeeze as much art out of it as you can.
Graham Parker called it "squeezing out sparks."
Again, I just have to say, I don't think there's anything, on either side of what you're doing, that's not art. I think that that's art.
(points to one of the book cover illustrations) And I think that's art. (points to another) I think that you may have had the motivation of an assignment, a paying assignment from a client as the original motivation, but I think that everything that you do is so personal, and you make it so personal, and it's so honest, and you don't have an ounce of bullshit in you, and you can't tolerate bullshit, that I think that what you're calling illustration is equally pure to anything you've got here. They're different stylistically, and maybe they're different in the approach of what you're trying to do, I guess, in that you're trying to strike out and purposefully rebel, or limit....but that's art right there, even if it was done on assignment. It couldn't be more pure.
I guess the thing about it is, that you do one thing, and then the next day it's something else. With this, it's all the one thing.
But, when you go through all the work for the show, the first show of illustration, and you edit 25 years worth of work, and like you've said, you don't know when it was done--the timeline kind of blurs. I think that when you do go back, and you take on the task of editing a life's body of work...I think you're going to find that there are things that naturally go together even though they weren't done in the same time period but they have something to do with each other. You might distill it down to a place where you have these different tracks--these separate bodies of work. Who's to say...I mean, who's to say that if you show this in Portugal, and it's work that was originally done on assignment in the states, but you've redirected it, regrouped it. Who's to say that that's not the fine art show?
(softly) I know.
...after you've given yourself the task, forcing yourself to look back and edit all this work...maybe that's where it all comes never can tell.
No. (softly) I guess I'm just rebelling a little bit.
When you like somebody's work, and you imagine what they're doing on their own. Then I imagine myself, and I can't imagine.
I've thought about doing portraits, just of people I knew, but 'illustration' sticks to it. It's just the word, and the stigma that's attached to it, for me. And then there's fine art, and that's some other bullshit, as well. I guess what I don't like about illustration is that it has to be finished, you know? It has to be perfect--or somewhat perfect. But maybe that's just something I have to rethink.
I have this friend who's a photo editor, George Pitts, and he also takes photographs. We were talking about pictures one day, over in the park at the library. I was telling him that I took pictures too, and he asked me what my major themes were. I said I didn't know if there were any major themes. He said, "You don't sound like someone who spends any time with his work. You have to review the work, look back at the work--that's where you find what it is that your eye is attracted to, what it is that you shoot." I'm not the most articulate guy about that stuff, but when I did start going back through it all, doing just the most rudimentary things like matching the contact sheets with the negatives (laughs), just getting it organized after all these years of moving from Memphis to Dallas to Austin to D.C. to here, and then from one apartment to another, then two different houses in two different towns...just trying to get that part of my life in order. And then finally, the editing part of it...and God! He was right. You do see exactly that. You do see that there are things that you are naturally attracted to, that over a period of 30 years you constantly go back to, things that you take a picture of every time you see it. And the groupings of it, and the idea of what you could do with those groupings....I was laughing with my wife, Janice, early the other morning, and telling her I could do a small show--without ever taking another photograph, not a single new frame, not even owning a camera--I could do a small show once a year until the day I die of these little sub-genre groupings...and be just the happiest man on earth.
I don't know why I'm telling you this. I'm supposed to be interviewing you.

No, I know. But the difference is, you're taking these photographs for yourself, so it's you, pure and simple. You're not being told to take a photograph of this person, then go take a photograph of a river, this tree, a boxing match. I am. So it's harder for me to find that kind of a pattern. I can find it in color and style, maybe. Content-wise, it's not there, because I've looked. It's not there. (his voice trails off)
Except that no matter what problem you're trying to solve for somebody else, I see it as being an incredibly cohesive body of work. (spoken slowly) Personality-wise. Stylistically. The way you think. What you choose to show. How smart and subtle the solutions are. You don't appreciate it. You're too hard on yourself. You don't recognize it. You take it for granted how special it is. There's nobody like you.
What worries me, I guess, is getting older. And losing it all together, you know?....
And you worry too much, and you can't take a compliment. (laughter)
I don't want the work not to have something to do with today. I don't want to be somebody who was around in the 80s, or the 90s, and now it's over. I don't know if you can be aware of that, and keep yourself going forward. Or, are you already fucked, and you don't even know it. Just sneaks up on you, and then...That worries me, and I think it's a motivator.
Keeping it fresh.
Keeping it fresh.
Staying current. Staying competitive.
I don't think I'm competitive in that sense. I think with the work I am, but as a job it doesn't interest me. All that self-promotion bullshit, going on and on about every little thing you do....but I realize that's part of it. It's like that famous School of Visual Arts saying, "It's not enough to have talent, unless you know what to do with it." I think about that a lot.
Talent, as well, is sort of a trap. I read somewhere recently that you can see yourself as a talented person, but if you're not really working at it....where as the less talented person who's really working at it....talent isn't the can be the worker that gets to the top, because the work is in it, and it comes alive. The person who's just sitting on his talent....I guess you need to have talent and you work, that would be good. I haven't got a work ethic.
Oh, c'mon!!
I've only heard that term since I've come to America. That's twenty odd years ago. I just think it's an Irish thing, a European thing. Over here everybody's really working hard to get somewhere, and over there they're...I don't want to be like that. That's why I left the place. You get all tangled up, and then you do nothing. Then you're 67. (smiles)
I would like to be able to be like Bergman in my work.
Ingmar Bergman? Explain.
I want atmosphere and poetry in my work, I don't want just...shiny things. I think that's something I have, but it hasn't come out yet. That's what I want--some deeper feeling.
What other director's movies do you like?    
Right now it's Bergman all the time.
Really. Well, that explains a lot. (laughs)
I can identify with Bergman's work--the loneliness in his imagery, the poetry. This is what I'm striving for--a kind of poetry--not just to solve a problem, but to pull as much art out of the piece as I can, regardless of the story, to give it some feeling.
Tell me more about how you relate to him.
I relate to Bergman because I feel he was basically a person who was always looking, and his work was always alive, even when it was concerned with death. I've read that Bergman, as a person, was not at all like his work, as is so often the case with artists. He was basically an upbeat, curious kind of person.
How about you?
I'm concerned with the darker side of things, the melancholy side. Maybe being Irish is part of this. Maybe that's why I can relate to the Portuguese sensibility so well. Where as, I am attracted to America, always loved the idea of America, but somehow I never fit in.
How do you think this has shown up in your work?
I feel like the characters are always on the outside alone, and somehow adrift in the illustrations--kind of like reluctant players in a story.
Beautiful....Any other kinds of movies that have strongly influenced you?
I like French movies. And Cassavetes. I only like somber movies. I like relationship movies, where everybody's...(speaks low and deep) fucked. (big Fred laugh) And that puts me in a good mood. (bigger Fred laugh) Because they're more fucked than I am. (more laughter still)
It's hard to be Bergman and be an illustrator, you know? Directors like Woody Allen--they can do whatever they want, basically, and that's what the attraction is for me with fine art. There's no money in it, but I can do what I want. I can explore, even if it goes off in the wrong direction. With illustration, you're not really exploring because you've got deadlines, and there's a certain amount of fear that somebody's going to say something, and then you'll have to do it again....and it's difficult to do it again if you believe in what you've just done. And then they don't get it. Christ.
How often does that happen to you?
Not as much as I imagine it to happen. (Fred laughs) But, I'm always ready for it. "OK THAT'S IT! I knew it!" It's the fear of it that kind of stifles it. And then you do something, and nobody says anything, and you think, "Jesus, this is great! Why can't I always be that free? Just do what I want."You imagine a group of editors getting together and they're all saying (whispers conspiratorially) "Noooooo." (chuckles) And then, I think, well, I'll get there first, and I won't give them the one I love....I'll give them this one. That's what I try not to do.
Explain what you mean.
Undermine myself to please them, so that it'll go through.

briancronin07[7]_1.jpg* * * * *
Let's talk about this hiatus from illustration that you've taken.
I think I've always taken time out, but this is a longer period.This was the first big job that I've done, and I enjoyed it....enjoyed drawing people again.
When you draw the people, are they out of your head?   
No, it's all reference.
Really? Describe the kind of reference that you're holding onto.
What do you mean?
What's the process for you? As you just live your life, you're reading a book, you're reading a magazine, going to the movies....are you consciously compiling material, tearing out....
I'm tearing stuff out of magazines.
Just because it moves you?
Just because it moves me.
And find a way to use it later?
I have this wall, and whatever's on the wall turns up in the work.
Same with me.
Yeah, it amazes me. You get a job, and there's an elephant on the wall, and it has nothing to do with the subject. But, then all you can think of are elephants...and then elephants come into the work.
It's important to change the wall very often.
I didn't used to use reference because I thought that would defeat the purpose, be a bit of a cheat somehow.
It's got to come from somewhere.
Well, yeah, the drawing's getting a bit more real because of it, the people are a little more real, so now I'm looking at magazines--mostly fashion magazines--taking faces and hands and such....but making it my own.
What's on the wall right now?   
A lot of interiors for the stuff I'm working on right now. I have stacks and stacks....there's a magazine shop near me in the East Village where you can buy old magazines cheap. It's a great resource--big thick magazines for $3.00. I like looking at them and just imagining....The internet is great, of course, just for poses and things like that.
With this new work, some of it is imagined, but most of it is reference as well. Vague references. Small pieces from bigger pictures. Some photographs of my own. I wish I had been aware of reference before. You see, when I started out, I'd have to go to the library or go to a bookstore and buy a book to get a reference for something. And then I'd never look at the book again. And now it's Google. It makes it less threatening when you get a job about something that you don't know anything about. You think, well I can find some reference, I'll find my way into it some way. Before it was like "Fuck! I don't know what they're talking about. I can't imagine doing this."

The woman that you went to Portugal for...what did she do?
(Very softly) Illustrator.
Where did you meet her?
I met her 14 years ago in Germany, some European community conference thing. Nothing happened. We just became friends. And then she came over here...and she found me a place over there....(Softly) And we hit it off.
I thought it was too early for me to get in a big relationship, and then I came back over here...and got in a string of smaller ones. (laughter)
And now I'm like (whispers) a priest. (more laughter)
How long was the string?
What do you mean?
The new relationships?
Not that there's a huge amount. But it's a whole new ballgame.
What's it like to be dating?
I think it's different dating now from dating (had I been dating) when I was in my 20s.
How so?
Everybody wants something serious now.
Are the women your age or younger?
Well, I'm 50, so 40s as dipped down as I've gotten. Do you know the expression "dipping down"?--down to a lower age group. 47, 46, down to 40....
But close to your age.
Yeah. I don't think I could be a baby snatcher. I don't think I could go out with a 22-year-old. I don't want to be the oldest guy hanging around the nightclub. Anyway, it's know?
All your old material's new again.
Right. (smiles

briancronin02[7]_1.jpg* * * * *
We were talking about starting over.
I feel I am always at the start...always beginning...never quite getting there.
How well known are you in Europe?
People know me, but within the small confines of the illustration world, the design world.
Who are your favorite fine artists?
Bergman is my favorite artist now.
Who else?
Because I like him as a character.
I just like his character, his honesty. That's what I like about work--when I see it and I feel it's honest, I relate to it. De Kooning, as well, for the same reason. But, it's not so much any one artist that I admire but the honesty that comes across in the work. If the art is just pretending to be something, it comes across, and I have no interest. I am concerned about doing work that is real. (voice trails off)
I don't really know who I like, really.
When you were a kid, and just starting out as an illustrator, who were the influences?
(pause) I guess Pushpin Studio. Milton Glaser. And Seymour Chwast. And Pierre LeTan. Folon. And then there was a whole group of punk people in England...Ian Pollock. There was another guy that had a big effect on me, but I can't think of his name....
I used to worship Ian Pollock.
Yeah. I heard a rumor that he was a janitor now. I often think about that--that I could end up flipping burgers somewhere. But, you've got security. It keeps them away.
I do? What is that?
The people downstairs behind the big desk, for starters. (Fred laughs)
What was the work like when you first started? What year was that?
As an illustrator? Guess it was '82. In Ireland.
And what year did you come to the States?
Yeah. Well, I left college in '81, and I did an internship with Milton Glaser. That was an eye-opener.
How did you get that? (jealous)
I won a poster competition in Ireland. Graphic design. I was doing type, and posters....stuff like that. I designed the type, did the drawing, the whole thing to try to win them over. And I did, and I got a scholarship. You had to say what you were going to do with the money and I said I wanted to go to New York and try for an internship at Milton Glaser's. I wrote to him and he said yes.
Pretty ballsy for a shy young man from Dublin.
Yeah, it was for me, because I'm not...ballsy. But, I had a teacher who put me onto Glaser's work.
Do you remember what the letter said?
Just told him I had won this competition, and I sent him some work over and he liked it. Amazing, because I got his letter and I couldn't believe it. Had his logo on it, and everything.
That beautiful signature....
I remember getting it and I had to go up to Thames Park, which is the local park, to open the letter because I was too nervous to open it at home.
I won the competition two years in a row. The first year was just to go to New York, and the second was Milton Glaser. I was completely taken with New York, and then when I went back it was like I was a loser. People said, "Thought you were in New York?" and (softly) I said "No".
He (Glaser) came over to Ireland to teach a workshop at the College of Art, and he asked to see me, and I went down, and he gave me some advice, (leans over and whispers) "Get out of this place."
Good advice.
So I went over...(softly) and I'm still here.
That was instrumental in getting you out of Ireland and to America.
Yeah. Because if I'd gone to England, being the Irishman in London never appealed to me. I don't think I would have had the same success.
I don't think you can have that kind of success over there, where one day you're doing nothing and the next you're doing a lot of work for all the major magazines. England's too small in a way. And they still don't pay any money.
As you came here, was the work pretty full-grown?
How do you mean 'full-grown'?
I made a lot of mistakes in Ireland early on, and I was a bit better, but it wasn't that mature. No.
I first saw your work in Rolling Stone. Did it look like that?
That was probably a year after I arrived. By then I was working in color. In Ireland it was all black and white.
What was the first big break?
Derek Ungless at Rolling Stone gave me the National Affairs column to illustrate. Rudy Hoglund at Time magazine. And then the Op Ed page at the New York Times.
So it was as big as it could be right out of the chute.
Yeah. It was amazing because I had made nothing for years and years and years, and just to make any money doing something you liked was heady. You know? (a little laugh)
Do you remember what your income tax statement was for your first full year here?
Probably 30 grand. Then it went up to 60 grand. It doubled every year for the first couple of years, and then it just fucking stabilized. There's a plateau that you reach as an editorial illustrator. You'd have to be working a million jobs to get beyond that, unless you get into advertising.
If I didn't really want to do it, I'd be more concerned about making money. I'm shooting myself in the foot half the time financially, but then I wouldn't have it any other way. I couldn't live with myself.
But, you've done advertising over the years, haven't you?
Never? Never??
Why not?
I never got asked. Well, when I did get asked I didn't want to do it because it was tobacco-related or some bullshit that they had already figured out. It was so bad. If I'm going to do a big campaign it's got to be something I want. I don't want to see it all over the place and it's just a piece of crap.
They're hiring you for the look of it instead of the thinking.
Yeah. Very often they have it all worked out.... If the thinking was good I could go along and hope to have input, but if it's so bad then you have to say noooo.
I don't know--there's a lot of good stuff around, but they're not looking for illustrators to do it. 
The thing about illustration is that there is no corner office, no keys to the car, no keys to the washroom (chuckle). There's nothing. You're constantly just there, competing with the next generation and the next generation.
So how do you judge yourself against that?
The oldest guy in the room...the last guy standing...seems like you're just getting started, and then pffffft. Where did it go?....
A little bit ago, you said that there's no money in the fine arts. Is that true?
I think for most people it's a little like that. It's like actors--there's Tom Cruise and then there's everybody else.
Do you know how you'll price pieces for this show?
Yeah. They're pricing it. And I get fifty percent.
I'm so happy to have a show, to have the gallery, and finally have that off my back. It's good.
How does it work? Does the gallery almost become like a client of sorts? Or a collaborator? They set the pricing on it, but have they seen the work?
I've shown them things...
A time or two?
Twice. They've already sold pieces.
They've already sold pieces?
Eleven pieces so far.
Oohhhhh! Just through carrying it, not from a show?
Just through carrying it, yeah.
So it's kind of like they're representing you. That's fantastic.
They've probably used up all the buyers already. (laughter)

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Can I backtrack a minute? I remember a conversation I had with you on the phone when you were living upstate, and you were working in a studio in your barn. It sounded to me like you were working on a much larger scale. Did I hear that wrong?
They were bigger, and on wood. But the scale isn't the important thing for me. I attempted bigger things, and I thought I hadn't really figured it out, to be working so big. And this is the size I'm comfortable with.
I'm kind of waiting for something to just hit (makes a bump sound), and then that's it. I'm gone! And the only way for that to happen is through the work and the sheer doing and doing.
I just feel like I should be twenty-something, to have the energy to keep it going. I don't know how long it's going to take. I had given myself four years, and I've already chewed those four years up.
Why is there a finish line?
I'm an American now. (big Fred laugh) There is no finish line, I guess. It's not the finishing, it's the starting. I just feel like I'm plodding the beginning.
(Said more to himself than to me) The thing is going to start...I'll just get it going and it'll all happen...maybe this is what it is...I've got to have it, though, because if I didn't have's the one constant thing.
(very quiet) What is?
The struggle with this. Sometimes it can be bliss, but it doesn't last, that's the problem.
That's what I wanted to ask. When I play this tape back, I'm going to hear things that sound more than a little down, very somber. Even how you choose to explain what you're about--Bergman, and all those melancholy things that you love. But when you're talking about it, there's such a twinkle in your eye. It betrays the words. (softly) There's genuine joy in the work...right?
Well, there is. There is. It's hard to recognize it. It happens and then it fades away and you keep at it until it comes back again. There is joy, but then there's struggle, and I tend to look at the struggle. The joy just comes and goes...between all the angst. (laughter)
I know I can sound very negative. I always sound negative. But really I'm not--not about work. I guess this is part of who I am. I know that deep down that art is what's important to me in my life. It's the one constant in my life. Without it I would be completely lost.
That body of work that you have is for all time, Brian. If you never pick up a pencil again....
I know, but there's something about interviews--you're just repeating the same stuff, saying the same things 'cause it's your life. But if you keep producing new work, you kind of change. You change your life. I guess that's a good way to end. "And then he died."
(Fred laughs)

shoes_car_FredWoodward_1.jpg(all illustrations by Brian Cronin, all photos by Fred Woodward)

  • Gabriel Guma

    Fantastic interview -- incredibly thoughtful, touching, funny, and with a depth rarely found in most trade publications that feature interviews with illustrators (thank you for that, Mr. Woodward).

    Mr. Cronin is undoubtedly an illustrator's illustrator -- a real maverick in the field that desperately needs his own retrospective monograph/show here in the US. (If anyone from the Society of Illustrators happens to read this comment...) The fact that he keeps reinventing himself to produce memorable, moving work after so many years as a practitioner is a testament to the scope and breadth of his refreshingly idiosyncratic, self-invigorating vision.

    Loved all the insights into his creative process, as well as all the unexpected references to Cassavettes and Bergman. Would kill to get my hands on the catalogue to the show in Portugal that this interview refers to (any leads to that end would be MUCH appreciated).

    Thanks again to Mr. Woodward, Mr. Cronin, and to SPD,


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